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The beginning of this year at Lawrence marks the beginning of my eighth year of working as a writing tutor, dating back to my sophomore year of high school. Seeing as this is my fifth and (God willing) final year at Lawrence, it may also be my final year of tutoring, at least for the foreseeable future. Teaching writing has enriched my life in numerous ways, and one of the main things I’ve gained is some perspective on First-Year Studies — and academic writing in general — that I think may be useful as the first couple of writing grades roll in for first-year students. Don’t get me wrong; you should still meet with a tutor, probably more than once. But these ideas may give you a head start on some of the work you’ll do in those sessions.
When we talk about First-Year Studies’ approach to teaching, we often talk about how the point of it is to teach writing, but that’s not exactly true. Look around at what people actually read in their day to day lives — books, magazine articles, newspaper columns, business proposals, tweets — this is the sort of writing that the majority of people actually do and read. First-Year Studies doesn’t teach you how to write, whatever that even means, it teaches you how to write in a particular genre. In my mind, the most successful approach to First-Year Studies is one that focuses on learning the qualities of that genre and how to fit into it as best you can.
And in fairness, it’s a useful genre to be able to write in. Academic writing is highly structured and rather unforgiving in the way it exposes convoluted thinking or unfamiliarity with its conventions of prose. When done successfully, it forces the writer to demonstrate a clear idea and clearer thinking, more like a proof from a math problem than the writing we’re most accustomed to reading. The key to success, at least to me, is being able to produce three versions of that idea.
As I often tell my tutees, you should be able to tell the story of your paper in the length of a tweet — this version is more commonly known as the dreaded thesis statement. If a writer can’t articulate the idea of the paper in a sentence or two, something has probably gone wrong. The second version is maybe a page long, and is formed by reading the thesis and first sentence of each body paragraph. This should also achieve everything the entire paper achieves: the topic sentence of each body paragraph should summarize the entire paragraph the same way the thesis summarizes the paper as a whole. The third and final version of the paper, of course, is the standard version you turn in at the end. This exercise of expanding and condensing the paper is something I do with all my own papers and nearly every one of my tutees. I call it extracting an outline because the same way a typical outline turns a sentence or two into a paragraph, this exercise asks the writer to do the same in reverse; if the writer wrote the paper from an outline, it’s interesting to see if the extracted outline matches the initial outline. Often it doesn’t. If a writer can do this successfully, the vast majority of the work is done. At this point, I like to think the writer has earned the opportunity to work on prose.
Prose is one of my favorite things to dig into but one of the hardest things to learn. Unfortunately, I think the easiest way to learn it is not quick: learn the technical conventions of the grammar you’re using, then consume as much of the writing as possible. Learn about the difference between dependent and independent clauses and how to use a semicolon. Note the writing you like in assigned readings for class, ask your friends to read their papers and your professors for model examples. If you feel especially motivated, look for articles on JSTOR or ProjectMuse. In my view, academic writing is a genre whose job is to make complicated ideas simple, and with very few exceptions, the prose can only be as complicated as the idea. Note when writers seem to lean on jargon and note when their ideas are explained in a way that facilitates your understanding rather than obscuring it.
If you don’t have time for all that, and nobody really does around here, there’s one method that stands above all else. Read it out loud. Read it out loud, with your voice! You will catch so many things with your mouth and ears that your eyes miss when they work alone.
With these two perspectives on writing for First-Year Studies, the sky’s the limit for what you can achieve through your words. At the same time, fear not. Think of the dumbest, poorly spoken, lazy upperclassman you know and take solace in the fact that they passed. Everyone passes. You have what it takes to excel, but in case of emergency, C’s really do get degrees. How’s that for prose?